Giving up a goal in the first minute of an outing is enough to make an NHL bench boss sprout a few grey hairs. Following that up with a goal against in the opening minute of the second period will make that salt and pepper look spread. But allowing a third to kick off the final frame? That’s enough to make a coach grab his hair by the roots and pull.
That’s why no one would have blamed Sharks coach had he torn out tufts by the handful early in the third period of San Jose’s Game 3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. In a contest that saw Vegas net five-plus goals for the second time in as many games, the Golden Knights got a goal from Mark Stone 16 seconds into the first, another from Paul Stastny 21 seconds into the second and the run of three first-minute markers was capped when Stone netted his second of the night 36 seconds into the third. And lo and behold, those three goals helped make the difference on the night, too, as Vegas skated to a 6-3 victory and 2-1 series lead.
The concern for San Jose goes beyond the opening-minute goals, however, as it’s the play and players that led to those goals, not so much the tallies themselves, that are most concerning. And first and foremost, the concern has to be about the performance of Martin Jones through three games of a series that is quickly slipping away from the keeper.
There was no question that much of this series – and the result of the first round – was going to hinge on Jones’ play. Everyone saw this coming, and we’ve coveredit before. A quick refresher: Jones was arguably the Achilles heel on an otherwise stellar Sharks team. Through a number of his 62 starts this season, Jones fought the puck, finishing the regular season with an .896 save percentage, far and away the worst of his career, and posting a career-worst 2.94 goals-against average. Despite the numbers, though, Jones was effective enough. He won 36 games, the third-most of any netminder. That said, it was expected – or hoped – that Jones would right the ship in the post-season, just as he has done in the past. Suffice it to say, he has not.
Though he was legitimately good in Game 1, stopping 24 of 26 shots en route to a Sharks victory, he’s been objectively awful since. In Game 2, Jones lasted all of 6:39 in the blue paint and gave up three goals on seven shots before he got the hook. Game 3 was only marginally better. Not only did he surrender the three aforementioned first-minute goals, Jones was beaten six times on 40 shots. The result? An .809 SP across the past two games to go along with an astronomical 8.06 GAA. Ugly stuff.
But the thing is that assigning blame solely to Jones would be unjust. Does the Sharks starter need to be better? Without a doubt, especially given Aaron Dell doesn’t really represent a solid secondary option given his own poor regular season play – .886 SP and 3.17 GAA in 26 appearances – and mediocre 14-save, .875 SP performance in relief of Jones in Game 2. That doesn’t absolve the San Jose defense of its own shortcomings, however, and there has been more than enough of those.
On the Golden Knights’ opening goal in Game 3, the seas parted for Stone and offered him up a juicy opportunity that even your top-tier beer leaguer could convert. Vegas’ third goal came on an awful defensive clearance and was followed by the Sharks puck-watching as Stastny rifled home a wrister. The fifth was miserable coverage that allowed Stone a wide-open tap-in following a rebound. And the sixth, which saw Stone complete the hat trick, was an aggressive play turned 2-on-1 that froze Erik Karlsson in his tracks, as he neither stick-checked Stone nor completely covered passing option Max Pacioretty.
It’s not as though those are isolated examples, either, and the series-at-a-glance is all the indication one needs that Jones, while not exactly stealing games for San Jose, can’t be the only target of the finger pointing.
Consider Jones’ workload. While he ranks seventh among all goaltenders in shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in the post-season, Jones has faced the highest volume of high-danger shots (13.8) of any keeper and 2.5 more than the next-busiest netminder. Because of that, Jones is making the second-most high-danger saves (9.9) per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of any goaltender in the playoffs. Nearly 43 percent of the shots Jones has faced this post-season at five-a-side are from the high-danger areas. So, should he boast better than the .714 SP he does on those attempts? Yeah, probably, but he’s also faced more than his share. The Sharks have to know that's not going to win them many games, particularly not against a Golden Knights team that is much better than your run-of-the-mill third-place club.
This comes down to a matter of the Sharks understanding their weaknesses, of which Jones has undeniably and unfortunately been one. But there are ways to battle bad goaltending. It’s through defensive attentiveness and limiting the opposition. If the Sharks want to advance beyond the first round, that’s what they’re going to need, because for all the run-and-gun ability San Jose has showcased, the past two games have indicated that insulating their crease might be the best – and possibly only – way forward.